June 14, 2018

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How can office design boost worker wellbeing?

Gilberto Vizzini from design studio Il Prisma tells SHP how considering the physical and emotional needs of employees can create a thriving workforce, whatever the size of company.

Health & safety professionals are well-versed in thinking about the workplace – risks, hazards and other dangerous elements. But as the wellbeing of workers becomes an increasing concern among employers, how the design of workspaces complement and enhance the needs of those that populate it is a growing concern.

Gilberto Vizzini design wellbeingPeople often spend longer in their offices than they do at home, so surely the design of these spaces is vital in keeping them invested, alert and, most importantly, happy.

Gilberto Vizzini, Head of the UK office of Il Prisma, says that wellbeing should be the focal point of every design. “The Il Prisma brand statement is ‘Design human life’. So for us humans are the centre of the project, and humans are our main focus. Human experience is what we try to think about first. And then the design is started depending on the experience we want to achieve.”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a workplace, retail or hospitality, we are designing for humans, so we are trying to find the right balance between the need of organisations and the need of humans. If you are not able to design a place where people can stay for a long time and feel good, then everything designed, even if it’s beautiful, doesn’t work.”

Designing a healthy workplace doesn’t just mean building a gym or making space for free fresh fruit. Gilberto points to Maslow’s pyramid of human needs – a five-tier model illustrating what motivates our behaviour. It rests on a base of basic needs (e.g. warmth, rest, security and safety) and builds to a point with needs for self-fulfilment – achieving potential and being included in creative activities.

“Wellbeing has to be started in the design process is from different perspectives, from different points of view,” says Gilberto. “If we start to analyse the Maslow pyramid, wellbeing will be right in every level.

“The design of physical needs is of course something that needs to be taken into consideration – using things like lighting – so all five senses can be engaged. It creates a place that is not only effective from the working point of view but is also embracing the people and allowed them to stay in a comfortable place.

“But the most important thing for us is engagement. It’s a thing we must achieve on every project. Engagement means creating a working experience that allows the worker to feel part of something, to belong to that brand.”

Creating trust in the workplace

Wellbeing is about putting employees in the position where they can work as effectively as possible. Part of this, says Gilberto is “feeling part of something, recognising their selves in the brand, and feeling that the brand is taking care of them because they trust them and want to support them in both their working lives and private lives.”

This could take the form of, for example, providing a service offering financial advice for employees, helping them to save or budget, because there are few things that weigh on the mind as much as money, or the lack of it.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

But it also means setting out a workspace around company culture, which itself can be evolved through creative design.

“Companies ask us to design a biophilic area where people can sit for five minutes to resolve a problem, because they are stressed and they just need to have a corner to sit in to fight the stress. If the company culture is putting stress on everyone, what’s the point of designing something to keep the stress away?”

Design of a workspace therefore needs to be a collaborative process: “We need to combine the need and the requests of everyone but the main goal is to give the best result in terms of experience to the employees, because it’s that that allows the company retain talent, to grow together with their people.”

Evolution of the office

Once upon a time, a decade or so ago, the prevailing image of an open-plan office was one divided into cubicles or compartments, giving each employee as little space as they need to do their job. Now, with the example of fun, spacious and creative spaces set by tech companies like Google, organisations are starting to see the office as something more than a spreadsheet made flesh.

“Today everyone is more focused on the wellbeing in terms of the lower levels of the Maslow pyramid. So the physical parts. We’re talking about natural lighting, services, the fresh fruit or the gym.

“The new generations are looking for a new, modern working experience. They are open to working everywhere: working spaces, Starbucks, airports. They are looking for that kind of experience. But we also need to consider Generation X. It will be the most aged generation in the workplace. So we are now thinking about almost 50 years of difference between Generation Z and the last of Generation X in the workplace all together. We need designs to take that into consideration: the needs of the older and the needs of the younger.

“The aged workforce can’t concentrate and can’t focus in too funky an environment, but at the same time the younger generation has grown in a multi-tasking environment.”

Companies big and small

These feel like very grand ideas, but they are principles that companies big and small can benefit from. Though Gilberto notes the growing trend of small companies using shared working spaces, which puts much of the physical design aspect in the hands of the building manager, smaller companies can be more precise with its building around psychological and mental health.

“Small businesses often have a stronger DNA than a big company because you always have a feeling of family, they are closer because they are working closer within a small business, so they grow together, they feel stronger together, and that’s something that maybe doesn’t happen in a big company.

“Even if they don’t have big budgets, small companies can work on the company culture to create a sense of belonging. They can work on the design of some elements, take care of the health and wellbeing of their employees, and can work on the internal exchange of services, small things that ameliorate the internal life of that company. They can use the technology, all the new opportunities on the market. The dimension of the company doesn’t matter, in terms of creating the wellbeing for the spaces.”

Design at Safety & Health Expo 2018

It feels like our discussion on design and wellbeing has only scratched the surface, but there are plenty of opportunities to learn more about the topic at next week’s Safety & Health Expo (19-21 June).

Gilberto Vizzini will be presenting ideas on workplace design and wellbeing in the Occupational Health and Wellbeing Theatre on Tuesday 19 June at 10.30, alongside Giacomo Rozzo, Strategist at Il Prisma’s Milan office, and Tom Alexander, Director at architecture and interior design firm Aukett Swanke.

Elsewhere during the Expo, Dr Ed Suttie, Research Director at BRE, will be presenting on nature-inspired design and the Biophilic Office (Tuesday 19 June, 13.50-14.20, Occupational Health and Wellbeing Theatre), while Hannah Nardini from WK.space will speak on workplace design and its impact on productivity and wellbeing (Tuesday 19 June, 15.40-16.10, Occupational Health and Wellbeing Theatre).

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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Nigel Evelyn-Dupree
Nigel Evelyn-Dupree
5 years ago

Of course working in an aesthetically pleasing space. not overloaded with novelty, good for the spirit so long as work & day-lighting tuned to no less than 480nm at the blue end of the spectrum to maintain wakefulness and alertness provided DSE interface ergonomics or accessibility adapted, customised or optimised for the operator. Ideally max time between physical breaks away from desk 90 mins and a visual break every 20 mins in the meantime will significantly mitigate the early onset of eye-strain, CVS along with risk of suffering repetitive stress injuries manifesting in 20% lost productivity (nearly 1 day in… Read more »